Johann Sebastian Bach was a composer explicitly within the Christian tradition, a fact ascribed both to personal belief and to the reality of his employment. He spent more than a quarter-century as cantor at St. Thomas' Church in Leipzig, Germany, composing the vast majority of his works there in that role. His connection to the church -- and that church in particular -- is so strong that he is buried under the choir chancel at St. Thomas'.
Thus, it's somehow surprising that some people might still think it's possible to separate his compositions from the Christian tradition they're so deeply rooted in. Maybe it's the agnostic sensitivity modern culture demands from its art. Maybe it's the resolute and pure aesthetic that Bach applied to his compositions that makes people think he could just as easily have been writing about pudding or ducks as about God. Maybe it's three centuries of spiritual erosion casting such beliefs into an unbelievably archaic light. Maybe, just maybe, "intelligent" people have trouble with the fact that some divine inspiration is, truly, divinely inspired. Whatever the case, any such attempt to extract the religiosity from Bach's music is futile: The two are perfectly interlinked, making one meaningless without the other.
"St. Matthew Passion" is one of Bach's most beautiful and well-known pieces. It's also -- at 68 movements in some three hours -- one of his most enormous. Though Bach composed three other oratorios telling the story of the "Passion" from the perspective of other apostles, it's his retelling of Matthew's version of events that has long stood as one of his most evocative works. Typically performed by a massive chorus fronted by individual vocalists, Bach composed the "Passion" with a much smaller group in mind, a dozen vocalists -- each performing a different role as Jesus, Judas, narrator, etc. -- bringing their voices together to form the chorus.
Performances of the "Passion" in this original format are rare; most conductors prefer to go for the visceral punch of a hundred-strong chorus. The "one voice per part" configuration, however, does have its appeal. Last year's Deutsche Grammophon Archiv release of Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort performing "St. Matthew Passion" was the first time a contemporary conductor sought to record the piece as one voice per part. The results are revelatory, giving the drama of the "Passion" an intimacy and intensity that can go missing from the larger-scale productions.
Similarly, "St. Matthew Passion" is rarely performed using the arrangement that Felix Mendelssohn created in 1841. Having deemed it "the greatest of all Christian works," Mendelssohn sought to reintroduce the then-forgotten piece to his contemporaries by crafting a more "modern" version that expanded the chorus to the now-familiar hundred-strong and emphasized more dramatic elements. Though some parts of Mendelssohn's influence remain in current performances of the piece, his full arrangement is all but ignored by current conductors. A good -- and inexpensive -- recording of his arrangement, conducted by Christoph Spering, can be found via the French label Naïve.
When the choir and orchestra of the Bach Festival Society performs "St. Matthew Passion" as the closing event of the 69th Annual Winter Park Bach Festival, they'll perform neither of these somewhat esoteric versions, opting instead for a double choir/double orchestra presentation (remember, their double choir will number over 100, while Bach's just hit the dozen mark), with an English translation of the lyrics by Robert Shaw. This is the way "St. Matthew Passion" is most commonly performed and though it won't explore the outer edges of Bach arcanum, any performance of this "Passion" is not to be missed. Still, it is a bit disappointing that the Bach Festival Society doesn't just go for broke and whip out one of these unusual versions. Sure, the organization as a whole tends to be conservative, but the musicians know what they're doing and, honestly, it's not like the Bach Festival is facing any competition.
Oddly enough, this year's festival would have been a perfect one to present a different version of the "Passion." The group notes in their own literature that Mendelssohn is the composer "around whom much of the remainder of the Festival revolves." And, in a telephone conversation, conductor John Sinclair pointed out another "theme," namely that Mendelssohn's "Christus" and Beethoven's "Christ on the Mount of Olives" both tell stories of the "Passion" from different perspectives. So, while the Bach Festival Society may not be digging around the back halls of academia for material, they're not unafraid to give listeners something to think about.
An article in a recent issue of The New Yorker bemoaned the trapped-in-amber perception that most people have of classical music. The writer eloquently described a life surrounded by this music -- full of God and sin, lust and redemption, heroics and melancholy. And he realized the reason most people were unable to appreciate the force of the music was because they were constantly told that the music was dead, only worthy of admiration by aesthetes and academics. Whether in English or in one-part-per-voice German, "St. Matthew Passion" is a work of blinding emotion and spiritual upheaval that doesn't need theatrics or liner notes to level its full impact.